Overcrowded prisons ‘act as a university of crime’

By Liz Stephens

Overcrowded prisons and high reoffending levels are being deliberately overlooked by ministers according to a damning report published today.

The Prison Reform Trust published figures showing some prisons are housing almost double the number of prisoners they were intended to hold.

The Trust also found that overcrowded jails were not preventing re-offending. Two in three prisoners are reconvicted within two years of release.

“Prison acts as a university of crime for the young,” the Trust concluded, with those under 20 serving short sentences for petty crimes most likely to be reconvicted.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: “Pressure on public spending means that ministers can no longer afford to be complacent about prison overcrowding or the high reconviction rates it leads to.

“Simply building more prisons is an expensive dead end.

“Investment in prevention, treatment for addicts and mental healthcare would all pay dividends. After more than 10 years of lurching from crisis to crisis it must be time for coordinated effort across departments and authoritative leadership.”

Meanwhile Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Paul Holmes said: “These deeply troubling figures highlight the chronic failure of this government’s prison policy.

“Labour’s obsession with sounding tough on crime has left our prisons dangerously overcrowded with sky-high re-offending rates.

“Ministers must realise the bankruptcy of their approach and focus instead on what works.”

However a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We will always provide enough prison places for serious and persistent offenders.

“The Government is pursuing an extensive building programme to expand the prison estate and expect to deliver an additional 1,750 places in 2009.

“This is intended to provide us with sufficient space to modernise the estate and ensure prisons remain places of both punishment and reform.”

The most overcrowded prison in England and Wales, according to official figures, is Shrewsbury, which currently holds 316 men, despite being designed to hold just 177.

Earlier in the year the government was forced to scrap plans to build so-called Titan prisons in the face of widespread condemnation from opposition and reform groups.